FULL IMMERSION

It’s 6,30am and I’m already at my desk working. It’s pitch-dark outside and it will be another three to four hours before dawn. If I’m lucky, it will be announced by wide brush-strokes of luminous pink the like of which I’ve never seen before. Gradually the lake and the mountains will slowly appear on the horizon. As I work my only distraction throughout the day will be the light that never ceases to change.

If I’m very lucky and the sky keeps clear until night time the dark blue will be the canvas for dancing, swirling lights – the wonder and magic of the Aurora Borealis.

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Photo by Merle Park.

If it rains the darkness will linger on all day affecting my mood and making me despair that I’ll never see the day light again and I’ll start questioning why I am here.

Here is Iceland, here is Gullkistan, an artists’ residence in the village of Laugarvatn some 70km from Reykjavik. I will be staying for a full month painting. The resident artists are seven in total, some visual artists and some writers. We work an average of 10-12 hours a day keeping the distractions to a minimum.

A year ago when fellow-artist Barbara O’Meara invited me to join her in this residency I said yes without giving a moments thought. When the departure date arrived I suddenly found myself wondering how would I get through a whole month in Winter, in the middle of nowhere, in Iceland.

Once here though I took out my brushes and paints and started. Now three weeks later I’ve hardly stopped. Never before have I had so much uninterrupted time to dedicate to my art and I’m enjoying it so much that even cooking and eating is perceived as a waste of time! Going for walks or on brief tours is a welcome way to clear the head and get some fresh inspiration for our work. Though I didn’t come here with the specific intention of painting the surroundings, I find that the surroundings are painting themselves.

When the bad weather keeps me indoors my attention focuses on the details – studies of bark, lava rocks and lichens – then I become obsessed with  how best to render the mane of a pony, the fleece of a sheep or the antlers of a deer. But when the weather turns beautiful and the sun illuminates the snow we are all drawn outdoors into the vast landscape made of large uninhabited areas. In the stillness the only perceivable movements are the columns of white vapours that rise everywhere above ground from hot springs.

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We walk on frozen ground but the vapours and jets of scalding water keep reminding us that under the crust fire is always burning. Water boils and rises to the surface in the shape of enormous bubbles ready to shoot up into the air while rivulets overflow on the earth painting it with a palette of brilliant blues, greens and yellows.

Back to the studio – it’s time to paint.

There is no shortage of inspiration or subject matter. Along with the landscape and its people, Icelandic music, sagas, poetry and novels provide other means of engagement and meaning.

In the studios we all work away with the same intensity and determination to make the most of the available time. We work mostly silently and self-absorbed. In this process I become aware that for days I have not listened to the news or seldom read a paper. I am fully immersed in art and preoccupied with the process.

I’m also intrigued by the work of the artists I work alongside; by the way they approach their paintings, their techniques and subject matter.

As I work I repeat to myself the same words of encouragement I dish out to the people I facilitate during workshops back home. My mood swings between frustration and elation but the truth is that I feel most alive when I paint.